Ingmar Bergman Rolls in His Grave
In 1955, Ingmar Bergman was broke and depressed, simultaneously trying to carve out a life in the theater and the film industry. His recent movie had done poorly, and the studio he worked for was threatening to cut him loose. It was either make a movie or commit suicide, he would later say, so he gathered together a group of friends and shot one of only a handful of comedies that he ever directed: Smiles of a Summer Night.
Named after three bemused "smiles" spent over the course of an evening—one for young love, one for fools, and one for "the sad and the dejected" (i.e., the audience)—Bergman's comic roundelay was a worldwide hit, paving the way for The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Contrary to the director's morose reputation, his tale of mismatched couples bed-hopping their way to happiness is brisk and upbeat, his philosophical musings deeply empathetic. No Swedish angst on display . . . the film ends happily, its lovers united with the people they truly care for.
In Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's inferior musical adaptation, most of the dialogue seems to have been taken directly from the original script, but the result here is Bergman Lite, its provocative edges dumbed down for American audiences.
Apprehension in tackling the difficult aspects of Bergman's work in favor of playing up its one-liners is what makes this a second-rate piece. While second-rate Sondheim is usually better than first-rate anybody else, the songs here aren't very memorable (save the company's energetic "A Weekend In the Country" and Missy Cotton's lusty but breathless rendition of "The Miller's Son"), and the composer simply falls back on the little musical tricks he's employed to better use elsewhere.
Sondheim and Wheeler ignore the old dictum of "show, don't tell," and instead give us scenes of characters talking and then singing about what we've just witnessed to reveal a character's inner state. Bergman's acerbic observations about the women's strength, men's frailty and the humiliation that results in that vacuum has largely been cut. Characters throughout have been softened or sentimentalized to make them more likeable, punched up for comic effect, inexplicably sex-changed or, even worse, killed off. With the film's central metaphor tweaked for the stage so that the third "smile" now refers to death, Sondheim and Wheeler's downer ending is in complete, ironic contrast to Bergman's generosity toward his characters. It's as if the duo couldn't resist kicking the audience in the teeth when it's trying to smile.
Director Stefan Novinski's staging gets lost at times amid Sibyl Wickersheimer's cavernous beige/Ikea blonde-wood scenic design, but most of the singing talent is well-cast and in good voice, and Dennis Castellano's always-reliable musical direction is again neatly on display, leading a very full-sounding six-piece orchestra.
It's hard to believe SCR's programming of A Little Night Music is anything more than a desire to fill box-office coffers, certainly not because anybody believed that this was something worth reviving. When SCR is brave about its choices—whether its Martin Benson's elegantly political productions of Shaw or the theater's support of button-pushing playwrights such as Noah Haidle—they're hard to beat. However, programming with an eye to satisfying an audience's bland expectations is, using a Bergman metaphor, a little like playing chess with Death.
Eventually, Death wins.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, SEGERSTROM STAGE, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555; WWW.SCR.ORG. THURS.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2:30 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 & 7:30 P.M.; TUES.-WED., 7:30 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 7. $35-$70.